Britain to send force to Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online

Britain is to send a rapid-reaction force to Sierra Leone in a gesture of support for the UN, the Government said today.

Britain is to send a rapid-reaction force to Sierra Leone in a gesture of support for the UN, the Government said today.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said 500 Royal Marines and five ships would be sent next month for a "limited period".

"While in the area, the group will be able to practice procedures and conduct a detailed reconnaissance, both of which will significantly reduce the time needed to deploy should the reaction force be needed in future," Mr Hoon told the House of Commons.

The deployment was a gesture of support for UN peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone, which Britain nonetheless has declined to join.

UN officials, stung by India's decision to pull out of the force and then by Jordan's intention to withdraw as well, are struggling to find troops to expand operations in the war-ravaged west African country.

The Royal Navy's amphibious ready group includes the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, the landing ship HMS Fearless, three Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and 42 Royal Marine Commando.

Britain has an agreement with the United Nations to deploy such a rapid reaction force if required, Hoon said.

Britain earlier announced an increase in its ground presence in Sierra Leone. Those forces are helping to train the Sierra Leone Army and are not part of the UN peacekeeping mission, which has an authorized strength of 13,000 soldiers.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last week that Jordan wants to withdraw its 1,800 soldiers from the UN force. That followed India's decision to pull its more than 3,000 soldiers out of the peacekeeping operation.

The United Nations is still seeking troops to replace them.

Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith said a vacuum was developing in Sierra Leone "which may well suck us deeper into this".

Responding to a lawmaker's question, Hoon said British forces would not become directly involved in combat with Sierra Leone rebels.

"The primary purpose of British forces going to Sierra Leone is to train the forces of the government of Sierra Leone," he said.

The Sierra Leone peace mission began a year ago to monitor an agreement between the government and rebels that was to have ended eight years of civil war. But the rebels reignited the war in May by taking 500 UN peacekeepers hostage.